This essay on Last Year at Marienbad appeared recently in Sight & Sound.
‘I am now quite prepared to claim that Marienbad is the greatest film ever made, and to pity those who cannot see it.’ So wrote Jacques Brunius in Sight & Sound in 1962, regarding ‘the film I had been waiting for during the last thirty years’. Five decades on from its first release a year earlier, Alain Resnais’s stylish conundrum still seems conjured out of some sui generis cinematic future. (Which is not to deny its influence on – to name two blatant instances – Stanley Kubrick and Peter Greenaway, not to mention Karl Lagerfeld, whose spring 2011 collection for Chanel played grandiloquently with the costumes and set design of the film.) What Resnais and script-writer Alain Robbe-Grillet achieved in Last Year at Marienbad was not just the much bruited importation of the narrative techniques of the nouveau roman into film – Resnais had already made Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Robbe-Grillet’s texts were anyway indebted to what he called cinema’s perpetual ‘present tense’ – but nothing less than the transmuting of film into a type of sculpture. Marienbad is cinema’s greatest hymn to stasis.
It was perhaps the mysterious immobility of the film, allied with Sacha Vierny’s gliding wide-screen cinematography, that transfixed and bemused audiences in 1961. (Vierny later commented: ‘While the [Dyaliscope] format usually implies a certain immobility, something extremely static, Resnais had a field day with camera movements, low angle tracking shots.’) But at least on the surface, it was the riddle of the film’s story and structure that intrigued. A man (X) tries to lure a woman (A) from her presumed husband (M) with the tale of a prior meeting and promise a year earlier. She resists, and the repetitive and labyrinthine pattern of their cross-purposed encounter is played out, with infinite slowness, in the ballroom, bar, garden and bedrooms of a vast, luxurious hotel. The critic Roger Ebert recalls emerging from a screening of the film in Illinois and engaging in earnest discussion as to the meaning of this elaborate game. What had actually happened (if anything) at Marienbad? Was the film a dream, a fantasy or a mise-en-abyme about the construction of memories?
On the face of it, then – and it’s partly a film in thrall to faces as such – Last Year at Marienbad is ‘about’ time, storytelling and the lures of memory, in the manner of other great Modernist works of the last century. But just as À la recherche du temps perdu, one of the film’s obvious analogues in terms of prismatic recall, turns out to be more concerned with bodies, space and things than the subjective machinery of memory, so it’s worth asking how Resnais embodied the flummoxing narrative matrix imagined in Robbe-Grillet’s script. The answer, as even a confused or resistant viewer must admit, lies in the film’s ravishing way with gestures and attitudes, all the ‘prodigious tableaux’ (as Michel Leiris put it in a letter to Resnais) in which bodies and inanimate objects – they are often the same thing – are discovered. The central ménage is just the pretext for an essay on cinematic movement and immobility.
In his introduction to the published version of the script, Robbe-Grillet remarks that he and Resnais saw the film entire from the outset, as if in architectural plan. A certain frozen quality was already part of that vision; in Resnais’s ideas, the novelist writes, ‘I recognized my own efforts toward a somewhat ritual deliberation, a sense of the theatrical, even that occasional rigidity of attitude, that hieratic quality in gesture, word and setting which suggests a statue and an opera.’ Almost everything in the closed world of Last Year at Marienbad (apart, that is, from Vierny’s elegantly vagrant camera) is frozen solid into sculptural poses and gestures. The hotel itself, confected on a set in Paris and in the opulent precincts of chateaux at Nymphenburg, Schleissheim and Amalienburg, is filled with fluid but moribund marble and stucco, gilded ceilings and mouldings, statues and motionless servants. The characters themselves are frequently frozen into attitudes of boredom, impassivity or languor. Even desire and shock (as in the bleached-out sequence that suggests X may have raped A) are signalled in statuesque poses, and when they move at all the principals wander among guests dispersed around cavernous rooms like so much dusty furniture.
More than this, A (played with a delicate and faintly comical mix froideur and vulnerability by Delphine Seyrig) seems at every moment ready to meld with the stone, wood or glass around her. Here she is ascending a huge staircase, her body tensing along the stone banister until she is almost a part of it. Or shrinking from the calmly insistent X to fling her arms around a marble column. And again, in a scene that Seyrig later claimed was improvised on the spot, becoming one with the mirrored panels of a wardrobe. Seyrig’s insistence that ‘certain gestures, which seem highly studied, were simply the result of my awkwardness’ is quite beside the point in a film where human bodies are reduced (or promoted) to the status of metaphysical mannequins. This before one has considered the profusion of statues and smaller sculptures that punctuate Vierny’s tracking shots through corridors and garden: including the slyly insinuated cardboard cut-out of Alfred Hitchcock that lurks in the shadows, ten minutes into the film, and seems to float a few inches from the floor.
If the timescale of Last Year at Marienbad is endlessly fluid and vexing – scenes from the present and (possibly notional) past are constantly imbricated in each other – the film nonetheless encircles a solid emblem of the encounter between X and A. In the hotel’s intricate and sterile garden, a large sculpture depicts a man and woman in classical dress, he advancing and she holding back. It’s the couple’s gestures that fascinate X and A: is the man’s hand extended to hold her back, and hers to point towards something we cannot see? (In numerous shots, the hotel guests, and the central trio, also gaze out of frame at who-knows-what.) Scultpure here is an embodiment of hesitation, of a movement stalled and uncertain. It transpires that the frozen universe that the film describes is really no such thing: the static bodies, real as well as artificial, are poised at the threshold of decision or action. Statues represent quivering potential, not a withdrawal into stasis.
At one point, in voice-over, X speaks (apparently to A) of a corridor ‘through which I was advancing to meet you between two rows of immobile faces’. The brightly lit scene rhymes with another darker one: fifteen years earlier, in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la bête, a passageway flanked by fragments of statuary (famously, they come to life as animated candelabra) had introduced one of that film’s motifs and themes: a petrified life suddenly animated by the desire and fear of another. We might even say that the sculptural obsession of Marienbad – in his Histoire(s) du cinéma Jean-Luc Godard speaks of Resnais as a filmmaker who ‘makes sculpture’ – is part of a pattern or frieze in mid-century French film. La Jetée is the obvious comparison: Resnais’s occasional collaborator Chris Marker populated his mostly static film with numerous statues and portions of statues. Both La Jetée and Last Year at Marienbad are in part films about ruins: the material remnants of vanished civilizations (in Marker’s case it is Paris that is ruined, in Resnais’s a whole refined culture that appears spectral and distant) and the remains of memories or fantasized futures.
In sum, after fifty years Last year at Marienbad remains no less suggestive and strange in its eerie approach to the condition of sculpture. In his essay ‘Notes on Gesture’, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has written that one of the functions of cinema in the twentieth century was to rescue the realm of significant gesture that had been destroyed with the advent of technologies of speed and a slackening of ideas of public comportment. If it’s true, then for the most part film achieved this through action, in the meaningful arcs traced by bodies on screen, whether comical or tragic. But in Marienbad everything stalls, and the history of human gesture returns, this time as shadows and ghosts among the statues.